A new precedent? Architect sentenced to jail for role in fire that killed a firefighter

I’ll admit my own bias in reporting on this story – when I first heard about this situation, I was very angry. The short version of the story is this: a German architect (not licensed anywhere in the US) purchased a property in the Hollywood Hills and began constructing a mansion, violating numerous codes and standards of professional practice along the way. A fire later breaks out in an illegal fireplace leading to the death of one firefighter. Sorry Herr Becker, du bist schlecht!

Numerous sources are reporting on the sentencing of German architect Gerhard Becker’s criminal conviction and subsequent sentencing for his role in a fire that resulted in the death of a firefighter. Civil cases are brought against architects all the time (see this article that gives some practical tips for design professionals in California), but criminal charges are extremely rare.

Gizmodo’s Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan has more:

The case dates back to 2011, when a fire broke out in the Hollywood Hills home of a German architect named Gerhard Becker, who designed the building himself. The fire began in one of four fireplaces that had been manufactured for outdoor use but hidden within the houses itself; this means they were in clear violation of local building codes.

The flames then melted a water pipe, which leaked thousands of gallons of water into a ceiling above the heads of the firefighters battling the fire. When the ceiling collapsed, it crushed 61-year-old Glenn Allen, who died the next day of his injuries.

What were some of the violations? According to LA Weekly, this is what the firefighters reported:

Inside, the firefighters punched a hole in the wall just above a recessed, 15-foot fireplace. They discovered an unusually large void behind it. The walls did not have the typical fire stops — two-by-fours or sections of plywood that would slow the progress of flame. Over the radio, Watters reported that the fire was “running between the walls.”

Shortly after the fire, the house was declared a crime scene, though Becker was not formally charged until a year later. As the investigation advanced, more details revealed that Becker routinely ignored and tried to circumvent codes and standards. In fact, the clashes began when local building inspector Brad Bescos caught Becker pouring concrete pilings without a permit and without the requisite deputy inspector on site.

“He was resistant to my correction notices,” Bescos would later testify. “He felt he didn’t need our department there because when he had built before, he was in charge, and he made all the decisions.”

When presented with obstacles from the building department, Becker would do anything and everything to avoid compliance, including going over Bescos’ head, offering dodgy interpretations of building codes (although to be fair, flawed building code interpretations are typical with many architects), and sometimes making changes after inspectors left:

Sometimes Becker would comply initially — only to change things back after the inspection. He removed the mandatory outdoor sprinklers because he did not like the look. He took out a railing that he thought was unnecessary, and removed the pool alarm. He also built a full kitchen in the maid’s quarters, when he was only allowed to build a sink.

The Fireplace

The cause of the fire was ruled by investigators to be caused by one of four fireplaces. The one in question was an outdoor firepit that was custom-fabricated by a company in Colorado. The manufacturer clearly stated that this unit could only be used outside and was not appropriate or safe for indoor usage. Becker’s response: “I just don’t see the difference. I[t] is a pit with a pipe.”

Here are just some of the defects forensic experts identified at Becker’s home:

  • Inadequate clearance above the fireplace (18-inches, versus the required 8-feet)
  • Inadequate ventilation for the fireplace
  • Adjacent materials were made of combustible materials and were therefore not appropriate for the application
  • Missing firestops in the walls as required by code
  • Intentionally disabled pool alarm
  • Required exterior fire sprinklers removed
  • Removed required railing
  • “Hidden void space” in the ceiling
  • The other three fireplaces were also constructed improperly (nevermind the fact that building inspectors never knew about any of the fireplaces because they were installed after inspection…)

The Conviction

Without getting too deep into all the legal issues (I’ll leave that to the lawyers), this case has definitely served as a wake-up call to my colleagues that work on the legal and insurance coverage side of the AEC industry.

One of the primary defense tactics that Becker’s counsel used was something called the Firefighters’ Rule. The theory behind this concept is that firefighters receive extraordinary benefits packages as part of their compensation, specifically to account for the increased risk that they face on the job. The nature of their work is dangerous – there aren’t any surprises there. Additionally, there were certainly other factors that led to the firefighter’s death that were not Becker’s responsibility.

What ultimately led to the criminal conviction was the fact that Becker, a celebrated architect and builder in Europe, should have known better, and intentionally circumvented building codes pertaining to life-safety. In the presiding judge’s words, Becker “acted recklessly and with gross negligence.”

The Precedent?

From the time that criminal charges were first filed against Becker, this case has been watched by the industry with much trepidation. Whether or not this leads to a new legal precedent is not clear. Also, it is worth repeating – Becker was not licensed in California, and because he was acting as an owner/contractor, he would not be held to the same standards of professional practice.

Regardless of the legal precedent, hopefully this will shine light onto an inconvenient truth that exists in the built environment. Just because the house costs seven figures and is built by a renowned architect, doesn’t mean that it is somehow better in terms of quality.

Without independent third-party verification of quality, you really don’t know what you’re getting.


Image courtesy Bob Jagendorf